8.5/10 – To begin I would like to thank Brain Staveley and Tor for giving me the opportunity to read an advanced copy of the highly anticipated Skullsworn, in exchange for an honest review.
The narrative is set in the same world as Staveley’s previously released Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne trilogy and it follows Pyrre, a character from those stories, however, it is being marketed as being a standalone adventure in the same environment. I, unfortunately, have to admit that this is the first book of Staveleys’ that I have read so, whilst some of my Goodreads’ friends will not be overly pleased that I, new to the world he has fabricated, have been given the opportunity to read and review an advanced version, I honestly hope that I do it justice and influence people unfamiliar with the author, as I was, that they can start here and truly enjoy what happens within these pages. I will post this to fantasybookreview.co.uk and I know that other reviewers and friends there have already read all of, and found Staveley’s previous works highly enjoyable and I envisage, going forwards that they will post reviews from their points of view and then we would have covered the opinions of new and seasoned readers alike. I am intrigued to see how the statements differ.
As briefly mentioned, the story follows Pyrre, who is Skullsworn – meaning she is a priestess, who just so happens to be a double knife whirling assassin in the service of the God Ananshael (this empires’ Death) and the tale revolves around her traveling back to her homeland of Dombang, the destination chosen by her where she could complete her initiation trial to prove her credentials and worth to her sect, and to her God. She is shadowed by two experienced practitioners of their Lord, one being the charming, deadly sex addict Ela and another being the seasoned, sometimes blunt but undeniably devoted elder priest Kossal. They are her witnesses, judges, and jury with reference to how they perceive her trial transpires, and assessing whether she has ticked the metaphorical boxes presented. Her trial is as follows – she is destined to kill seven specific individuals in fourteen days as depicted by a composed song and to conclude, she has to fall in love within the designated timeframe and then, kill that person as one of her seven offerings.
I approached this novel with an open mind, however; I had the view that, if I couldn’t follow what was happening in this narrative, did not understand the characters’ actions and was essentially lost in an abyss of an ununderstood art after fifteen percent, I wouldn’t have carried on and would have engulfed the trilogy first. I wouldn’t have wasted my time, or the authors time posting a review that wasn’t fair if the premise was that I needed to know the world already to appreciate it. After ten percent and taking a few notes, I was easily able to analyse the characters, the Gods they revered and the world that was frequented. I am glad my reading experience here did not end as the previous outcome suggested it may and that was half predicted, as I would have missed an entrancing tale.
Skullsworn is written in the first person perspective following Pyrre and her narrative bounces from current endeavours, to recollections of her colourful youth which ultimately has caused her to traverse back to her origin town and in addition; her descriptions of the world incorporating but not restricted to the Gods, religions, alliances and depicting her relationships and emotions with reference to each of the aforementioned and how they affect her world at this important time in her life. It is presented, I analysed, as either being a presentation of an internal monologue or a diary-esque autobiography and the writing showcases Pyrre’s personality, highlighting the darker aspects a disciple of a macabre Lord would feel within themselves, as well as her acknowledging the beauty in the world showcased by some of her heightened and poetic descriptions of the environment and events. It is a pleasant juxtaposition. (Every university students favourite essay word).
It is intriguing that I, as a new reader, am not aware if this happened before or after the trilogy of Staveleys’. This didn’t affect my enjoyment but may add extra layers when approaching Skullsworn, to a seasoned reader of this gentleman’s’ works.
This is not a very long book. Perhaps 350-400 pages and it has about 5 or 6 main characters always presented through Pyrre’s mind and the views of hers acknowledging the looming pressure of her trials deadline ever lurking. Kossal and Ela, the two shadowing priests from the white sandstone fortress of Rassambur, where the Skullsworn prepare, train, and worship are a great duo. So different in personalities but their respect and “relationship” is intriguing. One of the major players in this story is not one of Pyrre’s Ananshael respecting colleagues but is a gentleman named Run Lan Lac. Bare-knuckle boxer, leader of the cities alliance the Greenshirts and Pyrre’s ex “lover” from an age long ago. The conversations between Pyrre and Run are integral to the story and together they discuss the past occasionally but are more interested in the potential rebellion and uprising which people say are revering three ancient God’s whose names have been banned from being spoken for many generations.
If so far, Skullsworn does not sound enticing, then I imagine you have internet fallen on to my review page by mistake. It is a concise narrative of the highest order. The politics and underground rebellions and factions reminded me of Scott Lynch’s work to a degree. There are many breathtaking scenes. Collapsed bridges leaving 100’s of people drowning in miasma of sludgy nothingness, naked alliance battles against Croc’s to prove their worth to a mythical age old faction and, in addition showcasing loyalty to a deadly macabre Lord that will set his priests against potentially undefeatable mythical races of old.
About 30 pages from the finale of the book, I had no idea how it could come to closure in that short timeframe. It did, and it was highly unpredictable. Quite tragic too. In fantasy these days, most of the stories present a relevant level of grimness and this overcame the acquired amount. If you do not like swear words or depictions of a sexual nature, then you may be too young to truly appreciate this. The word cunt is used here occasionally. The sexual nature bizarrely sums up the corruption and ill-advised happenings of the world but also the beauty in certain segments. Hopefully, you will see what I mean. I am happy to admit that this is a highly engrossing fantasy world even in this slightly streamlined presentation limited to few, albeit, amazing characters. This is a great entry point for this gentleman’s’ work and truly I wish to check out the rest of his stories.